Three school girls reading together in Indonesia.


Tolerance and Respect: Emerging Lessons from Indonesia’s Cross-Cultural Religious Literacy Program

By: Siobhan Cooney

January 31, 2024

Indonesia prides itself on its commitment to rich cultural and religious diversity. Nowhere does this have greater relevance than in education, which lays the groundwork for basic appreciation of a society's core values and, in an increasingly interdependent if deeply polarized world, of the common ground on which to build sustainable mutual understanding. 

A January 29 panel discussion co-sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University and the G20 Interfaith Forum (IF20) shared insights from a Cross-Cultural Religious Literacy (CCRL) program that serves primary and secondary school teachers from across Indonesia.

In introducing the event, moderator W. Cole Durham, Jr., president of the G20 Interfaith Forum, said that because religion is often left out of the policy perspective, they are working to give it an active position at the table. 

“Right at the core of working on religion and policy is understanding different religions, and we think that CCRL will work not only as it has in Indonesia, but has more general implications.”

Promoting Covenantal Pluralism and Social Cohesion

Chris Seiple, a principal advisor at the Templeton Religion Trust, laid a foundation for the panel discussion by describing the work of Templeton’s Covenantal Pluralism initiative. In addition to producing resources like the Routledge Handbook of Religious Literacy, Pluralism, and Global Engagement (2022), the initiative also supports on-the-ground efforts like the CCRL program. Driven by a desire to engage with respect and execute with excellence, the main tenets of the Templeton initiative are freedom of religion or belief, cross-cultural religious literacy, and character development. 

Out of this initiative also came another program dedicated specifically to cross-cultural religious literacy. Seiple then described the three competencies—personal, comparative, collaborative—and the three skills—evaluation, negotiation, communication—that are embedded in the program’s ethos and operation. 

While religious literacy is generally understood, especially in governmental settings, as knowledge of the other, Seiple explained that cross-cultural religious literacy borrows from conflict resolution frameworks in maintaining culture as its own concept separate from but related to religion. He also highlighted how the intentional use of non-religious terminology in the CCRL project language has tremendously helped program development.

“It’s about engagement; it’s not necessarily about religion. When you can have that kind of mutual engagement, then you’re also building social cohesion and preventing extremism.”

Indonesia: Cross-Cultural Religious Literacy in Action

The attention then turned to Matius Ho, executive director of the Leimena Institute, who coordinates the CCRL program in Indonesia. While the national government was already developing interfaith activities, Ho recognized the need for the systematic cooperation and solidarity afforded by the CCRL framework. 

With a population of over 273 million people, Indonesia has 1,331 recognized ethnicities and 652 unique languages. The country is also home to the world’s largest Muslim population, despite having no official state religion. This diversity, however, has produced growing religious hostilities and tensions. Ho shared that a nationwide survey conducted from 2017 to 2018 found that Muslim teachers across the country had the highest reported opinions of intolerance and radicalism.

To reach this influential population, Ho worked with an extensive network of government, education, religious, and other partners to formally launch Indonesia’s CCRL program in October 2021. To supplement Templeton’s existing structure, the program team incorporated social psychological elements of Intergroup Contact Theory by creating environments for majority and minority groups to address their stereotypes and prejudices. Ho also emphasized how the program not only respects religion through mindful dialogue, but is action-oriented.

“We need to go beyond dialogue into collaboration, because it is when we can collaborate with people of other faiths that we can really develop trust, the social capital.” 

The first part of the program includes a five-day online training series for K-12 teachers and religious educators, including sessions with leaders from each of the Abrahamic traditions, religious site visits, and hybrid workshops where teachers develop their own inclusive lesson plans. The second part of the program gives participants access to activities and resources for further study and practice.

Strategic Religious Engagement

In just over two years, the CCRL program has reached over 7,000 teachers in Indonesia. Having seen this success, Seiple emphasized how the program is meant to empower people to connect their faith with their work. Rather than sacrificing the substance of belief, they learn to engage because of belief, which he believes can accelerate practical collaboration.

Echoing these sentiments, Berkley Center Senior Fellow Katherine Marshall described the CCRL program as an act of “strategic religious engagement,” an effort to turn religious influence into something practical. Marshall also observed that since the COVID-19 pandemic forced people around the world online—including for education—a program like CCRL is not only more feasible, but more relevant.

For Durham, the key is the program’s ethos of teaching about religion, rather than seeking to inculcate particular beliefs. CCRL’s framework also recognizes that pedagogy—how one teaches—can be as important as the content being taught. He believes that CCRL can and should be a central methodology in high-level global development work, especially at the G20 level.

“These are principles that are not only portable across national boundaries, but they are portable into other areas that are critical to life and religious freedom.”

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